Tuesday, March 31, 2009

7 Churches of Revelation

(from the sights in Laodicea.)

I just returned home from sightseeing the Seven Churches from Revelation. The common theme was: they were all once a church and they are now all ruins. I must admit, it was a little upsetting to see nothing but broken pieces of rubble in places that once had a thriving church. Some were off in the fields, and others in the middle of modern city blocks. They are empty spaces that once were beacons of light. How sad.

But praise God that He is risen, and that the Word is living and active, even when human creation falls and human relations fail. We did a short Bible study of each site and what I realized is that all the problems Jesus addressed in His letters to these churches are, sadly, still things the modern church struggles with today.
The main street in Laodicea.
The library in Ephesus.
The cisterns of Smyrna.
The stadium in Pergamum.
The gymnasium of Sardis.
The ruins of Thyatira.
The remains of the church in Philadelphia.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Book Review: The Middle of Everywhere

Austin, Texas is a refugee resettlement community. So my friend Angela gave me a great book to learn more about how I could “get involved” with refugees here in my hometown. The book, “The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community” by Mary Pipher, was so helpful! It was fascinating because it was chalk full of story after story from refugees who’ve fled their homeland, lived in refugee camps, and then been placed here in our country. The book was also full of tips, guides, advice, and inspiration. I highly recommend it.

Garrison Keillor wrote that, “If we knew the stories of refugees, they would break our hearts.” Refugee stories are powerful and moving. They HAVE broken my heart. And they inspire me to love, serve, and befriend the refugees who now call Austin home.

In her own words, Pipher describes her book this way: “This book is not an academic tome or an in-depth analysis of our policies toward refugees. It doesn’t tackle many systematic issues, such as root causes of the worldwide displacement of people or the political, economic, and social issues that come with this displacement. Rather, I attempt to show, by telling the stories of real people, the effects of our current policies (towards refugees). My goal is to increase the interest of ordinary Americans in refugee issues with the hopes that they will then dig deeper...

“The United Nations defines a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution. These claims of persecution must be based on race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or political party. Refugees are resettled in a third country when they are unable to return home and cannot stay in the camp or country in which they were granted asylum.

“My hope is this presentation will give readers a glimpse of worlds they didn’t even know existed in their hometowns (as many American towns are refugee resettlement locations) and motivate them to discover more about these worlds themselves (by getting to know refugees first hand).” (excerpts from pg. 18-20)

'I Am From' Poems

One tool that Mary Pipher recommends using with refugees being resettled in America to help them heal, process, and express is “I am from” poems, an identity exercise. So what are you supposed to write? You write a poem that includes something about place, religion, and food that trace back to where/how you are “from.”

In her book, The Middle of Everywhere, Pipher records some poems from some of her refugee friends over the years… just one or two sentences from the poems of many different refugees with deep and wide stories of pain, of fear, of trial. Below is an excerpt from pgs. 194-195:

Senada had written, ‘I am from parents that always had pain inside them and from the big beautiful oceans that I flew above.’

Sara had written, ‘I am from Shiraz, the city of flowers, the city of poems. I am from teachers that beat children with thick sticks.’

Boa had written, ‘I am from a house made of leaves, and when it rained, water dropped into my bed.’

Pablo had written, ‘I am from people who work really hard to get minimum wage. I am from a family who is always missing the ones in Mexico.’

Vu had written, ‘I live in a world of peace, freedom, loneliness.’

Koa had written, ‘My heart is breaking. I’m going for a long walk to forget the past.’

Manuel had written, ‘I dream I have a ton of gold so I can help my family. And I help other people so no one would be homeless.’

Ivan had written, ‘The war begins when two or more politicians decide to get more land power and money. But they do not care about the people. The people suffer and do not want war.’

Khairi had written, ‘I am from the country of sadness and dying people because of too many wars. I am the one who got lost in this world and I do not know what my real nation is.’

Zohra had written, ‘I am from Afghanistan, in the heart of Asia, with high mountains that hold emeralds and rubies. I am from a country that has rushing rivers that wash the blood of people who lost their bodies.’

Lana had written, ‘I am from a country where the sun stopped shining, where the butterflies stopped flying and where mothers’ hearts started crying.’

Tavan had written, ‘I am from where the waterfalls drop like a bird I the sky. From a place where the land is green and beautiful all summer long and in the fall the leaves fall like diamonds from the sky.’

What would YOUR “I am from” poem say?

Pipher opens her book with her own (full version) “I am from” poem. Which having been written by an born-and-bred American is starkly different from the poems of refugees. From pg. 1:

‘I am from Avis and Frank, Agnes and Fred, Glessie May and Mark.
From the Ozark Mountains and the high plains of Eastern Colorado,
From mountain snowmelt and lazy southern creeks filled with water moccasins.
I am from oatmeal eaters, gizzard eaters, haggis and raccoon eaters.
I’m from craziness, darkness, sensuality, and humor.
From intense do-gooders struggling through ranch winters in the 1920s.
I’m from “If you can’t say anything nice about someone don’t say anything” and “Pretty is as pretty does” and “Shit-mucklety brown” and “Damn it all to hell.”
I’m from no-dancing-or-drinking Methodists, but cards were okay except on Sunday, and from tent-meeting Holy Rollers,
From farmers, soldiers, bootleggers, and teachers.
I’m from Schwinn girl’s bike, 1950 Mercury two-door, and West Side Story.
I’m from coyotes, baby field mice, chlorinous swimming pools,
Milky Way and harvest moon over Nebraska cornfields.
I’m from muddy Platte and Republican,
From cottonwood and mulberry, tumbleweed and switchgrass
From Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, and Janis Joplin,
My own sweet dance unfolding against a cast of women in aprons and barefoot men in overalls.’

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Get to Know a Muslim Instead of Thinking You "Know" All About Them

I learned this lesson from a respected mentor and friend of mine, Joey Shaw. It is something I have to remember to put into practice... because our natural tendency is to stereotype & assume.

From a recent blog of his:

One of the major lessons that I try to get across when I teach about Islam to Christians is, “Never presume someone’s worldview or theology based on the faith system to which they claim to ascribe. Always first approach your Muslims friends not as “Muslims” but as individuals who have a unique worldview as well as perspective on their religion. Never presume your Muslim friend fits the mold of what you think is a ‘Muslim’”.

This, in reality, is a basic lesson of interpersonal effectiveness: each person is unique. Never place people in one of your conceptual boxes until you get to know them well.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

In Theaters Everywhere Tonight

Fathom Events is doing a special screening nationwide tonight of a great new documentary called "A Powerful Noise". It's for one night and one night only. If you don't have plans tonight, no matter your city you live in, check out if it's playing at a theater near you. It's about 3 women who are making a difference in this world in poverty, health, and injustice.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

How Much $ Does the Government Give Refugees?

When the U.S. receives new refugees to be resettled in our country, they give them monetary assistance. For the first 4 months they are here, they get $445/month. This is to help them as they get settled while they apply for their Social Security cards and work visas. It is the goal for them to be employed and self-sufficient after the first four months. After that time, if they still need a little help, the government will give them $187.50/month for the second 4 months. Beyond those 8 months, they are on their own, unless at that time they qualify for other low income services as a regular U.S. family.

There is a Match Grant program that can be given to refugees on top of this federal assistance. But as far as what our government does to help, that's about it.

Can you imagine, moving from a refugee camp to America... with little to no ability to speak English, without a job, with no friends, and no knowledge or understanding of our culture (regular life-culture, and the culture of our social services programs). And you have 4 months to figure it out... how hard would that be?!

Reality of Poverty & Austin

During my Caritas volunteer training, I took a class called "The Reality of Poverty." I was curious to learn about this subject because I honestly have no idea what poverty looks like and how hard it is to live in it. I am (obviously) in no way an expert, and recognize what I learned is just the tip of the iceberg... plus it is only book knowledge, not first hand experience... but I thought there were some fascinating things I should share.

Did you know that the Federal Poverty Guidelines determine who qualifies for social services assistance, regardless of what city you live in? Well, the 2008 Poverty Level is as follows:
  • For a family of 1: $10,210/year
  • For a family of 2: $13,690/year
  • For a family of 3: $17,170/year
  • For a family of 4: $20,650/year
  • (it goes on up from there, but you get the idea)
Those numbers stay the same whether you live in Lincoln, Nebraska; Abilene, Texas; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; or Austin. Now why does that matter? Well, think about what you know about the cost of living in Austin: it is HIGH! If you live here, you know just what I'm talking about.
Now imagine what that means for families in Austin who need to qualify for low income social services!

And check this out... a 2006 statistic provided by the Basic Needs Coalition of Central Texas says that IN TRAVIS COUNTY a family of 4 (2 parents, 2 kids) needs a household income of $53,080/year just to cover basic expenses... more than double the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Which means that 40% of families live below the "Central Texas Security Index" suggesting that any major change in their family income or expenses threatens their ability to make ends meet.

This information was shocking to me! And so scary. And makes me want to be a part of helping those with low incomes in Austin. Click here and here to find out how to help.

Isn't that crazy!??

God Grew Tired Of Us

After listening to the sermon last fall and seeing the video about refugees, I knew that the seeds which had already been planted in me were watered and fertilized. But then another piece of the puzzle fell into place. I was checking out movies at Blockbuster when the the cashier told me that I had a free rental from the "old movie aisles". So I went and browsed the Independent Film and Foreign Film sections (cuz Andy likes those) and saw the cover for "God Grew Tired of Us".

I had heard the title, heard it was good, but literally had NO IDEA what it was about. It was a Sundance Award Winner and the rest of the check-out line was waiting on my quick decision, so I grabbed it and ran. I didn't even bother to read the back cover before putting it in the DVD player and pressing PLAY. Check out the trailer here:

Oh--my--gosh--, it was so timely. And powerful! It was about Sudanese Refugees. It followed a group of men from the time of their exodus from Sudan, to their time living in a refugee camp in Africa, through their move & transition to America, and finally through the first 4 years of their lives here. It is incredible. It gave me a look into how people in the U.S. could help refugees adjust and get on their feet here. You have to rent this movie... it will stir your heart to care about these new neighbors here in America (and Austin).

The Theme of Refugees

If you read my last post about getting to serve in the Sudanese Refugee School in Cairo, you'd notice I mentioned God has been developing a theme in my life since 2007... a theme of being interested in and caring about refugees.

It started when I read the personal memoir of a Somali refugee in The Netherlands (Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali). The first part of her book described her life before fleeing as a refugee. The second part of the book describes her life as a refugee in a Western country. And even after she was settled in her new country, she also served for years as a translator for other refugees. The stories she told about the lives of refugees were so crazy to hear! I literally wrote in the margin of the book several times: "If only there were refugee camps in Austin!" and "I wonder how someone in Austin could help refugees." I read several more books with similar stories and continued to highlight and underline stories about refugees and still wondered "are there refugee camps in the States I could get involved in?"

Low and behold, during our church's fall vision series they aired a video of people in our church who were "living missionally".

Synergy from The Austin Stone on Vimeo.In the video I learned that:
A) there are refugees from all over the world RIGHT HERE in Austin! and
B) that there are volunteer opportunities to serve the refugees RIGHT HERE in Austin!
WHAT?! How exciting is that!!

So, I got online and checked out Caritas to see about volunteering with their organization to help the refugees here in my city. It was so easy. I filled out the application, had an interview, took their training classes, and am about to get my first client. I am thrilled! Stay tuned for more info on serving refugees here...